Book Review

Review: Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard (2017)

5/5 stars

This is one of my favourite Christmas presents from this year. I’ve had my eye on it for a while: a book entitled ‘Women & Power’ is almost guaranteed to be interesting in light of so many debates occurring in the world today.

It’s a slim volume, but Women & Power: A Manifesto is full to the brim of interesting examples that trace some roots of current misogynistic culture to ancient Greece and Rome (not all of them can be traced back to these times, Beard points out, nor were those eras wholly grounded in gender imbalance). The essays themselves are based on two lectures Beard gave in recent years, and I so wish I had attended them. The power of these ideas on the page is so great that I can only imagine how much more so it would have been live.

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From the first paragraph, I was hooked. Beard’s opening example of a woman being told to be quiet and leave the room is incredible. In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, tells his mother to stop speaking and return to her weaving. As Beard explains, it is not just that Telemachus did not like what his mother said. In the context of Homer’s Odyssey, and the culture in which it was written, speaking in public was a part of masculinity: it was a way of becoming and being a man. Therefore, women had no ‘right’ or authority to speak publicly. If they chose to, that speech was a threat to masculinity, and therefore had to be silenced, disempowered. Beard highlights the echoes of this that we see today, where women’s speech is often dehumanised (described as a bark or a whine) in order to remove the authority from their words.

Beard unpicks terms that seem so common and natural for us to use, exposing what those terms tell us about how we perceive women in positions of power. If a woman is “breaking the glass ceiling”, she is on the outside, excluded, and having to force her way in. We have no history of understanding public arenas as her ‘natural’ place, which then impacts upon how she is perceived if she does gain access to a position of power. It impacts the way these women approach their own public image: what they wear, how they speak, and what they speak about.

Bringing her own online experiences into the discussion, Beard highlights the ways in which television and social media play a role in trying to silence women and remove them from the political arena. Again, the parallels or links between current imagery and classical themes are interesting. The image of Donald Trump holding aloft the decapitated head of Hilary Clinton was evidently inspired by a statue depicting Perseus defeating Medusa. Such imagery shows that for some, women cannot be debated with on a level playing field; their public voice is so dangerous that they must be silenced, humiliated, and destroyed as Medusa was.

The most empowering aspect of this work is that rather than just trace the roots of present misogyny, she looks to the future, and asks us to consider how we might change things.

“…if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”

No small task, but there’s an optimism to Beard’s tone that suggests that it is possible, as well as necessary. I also appreciated the acknowledgement that women are not the only ones who feel voiceless – that various factors influence how women in public and politics are treated, and that structures and institutions of authority do not solely exclude based on gender. It opens up the discussion about how we can create a more equal space for people to have their voices heard.

The lecture-essays that comprise Women & Power achieve what all effective non-fiction and historical work should do – it opens your mind to ideas and knowledge that you didn’t have before, or encourages you to think about something you do know in a new way. Beard’s structure and style is incredibly accessible, and she moves seamlessly through well-considered ideas and examples which makes Women & Power an enjoyable as well as an interesting and timely read.

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard, is published by Profile.

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